Developing Staff-Centric Innovations to Solve Healthcare Workforce Issues


Healthcare is facing many challenges with changing demographics and burden of disease, system reform with new models of care and growing consumer expectations impacting on demand for services and workforce. At the same time, we have ongoing maldistribution, inequalities of access, long training times and increasing subspecialisation within professional silos. Workforce planning needs to facilitate workforce change and innovation if we are to transform our system and improve the health outcomes it delivers. 

Ahead of the Free to attend Healthcare Workforce event at Australian Healthcare Week 2019 we chat to Helen Finneran, Workforce Planner in the Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria about the steps they’re taking to develop new approaches to workforce planning that ensure the future supply of skilled health care workforce but also lead to new roles and workforce models in Victoria. 

What steps are being taken to develop new workforce models to maintain the capability of the services you provide?

We’re currently doing a lot to look at emerging models of care in both health and community services. Understanding how these two areas change over time helps us to see how our workforce needs to change too.

Sometimes our workers need to learn new skills to be able to deliver new types of work. As well, we need systemic changes to facilitate new roles to develop and establish within our system. We start by undertaking research to assess what models of care are changing for the better and what workforce changes need to be put in place to fulfil that new way of working.

We approach the topic from several angles. Sometimes, we’re looking at how things are now and trying to understand why they’re not working. For example, we have a problem right now in Victoria with a shortage of health care workers in rural locations. Our workforce planning process looks at why this is happening and what could be improved. It is important to understand the problem well to be able to find opportunities to make improvements.  Workforce planning approaches that focus on current challenges are important to ensure the workforce is sustaining the current system effectively. 

However, there comes a point when we need to recognise that it is time for a new system. You need to apply a very different approach when you are planning the workforce for a new system. You can’t analyse something that doesn’t exist yet – instead you need to design the new workforce. 

What are the steps you use to develop the new roles that are needed?

To do that we need to employ a design process approach, when you’re trying to create something entirely new you first look at the potential demand – what you need from your workforce. 

To achieve this, you start with the idea or vision of what you’re trying to achieve and the principles around it. Then you design ways of working and a workforce to deliver that. Overall, it’s like an experimental or iterative process where you design something and see if it works and you refine your design as you see how it works, adding and changing as needed. Gradually from all the testing you create a workforce role or model that achieves the result you want.

We also have a lot of things we’re trying to do now. The key to this is developing further capabilities for new ways of workforce planning. In the old days we used to work out what our gap was and fill that. However, nowadays you’re trying to create something new and thus the sets of skills that a workforce planner needs are very different. 

We’ve been piloting and testing these new approaches, drawing on methods that already exist like design thinking, strategic foresight and systems thinking. So, we’re using existing methods, but they haven’t really been utilised much in workforce planning before. Thus, this entire process is about testing these things, learning as we go and putting together the necessary resources, so other workforce planners can have a go too.

This year, we’re also starting a capability development program for the sector workforce planners to share with them everything we’ve learnt so far and to help them be confident in using these new approaches in addition to the more traditional workforce planning methods. 

What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced to-date?

The biggest challenge for us is that this is really tricky workforce planning; we have to deal with a lot of uncertainty and complexity.  When you are planning a workforce for a new model of care that is only just emerging, it is sensible to draw on existing roles and just tweak them slightly. Expand their capabilities and scope just a little. Often this works well, but other times we are designing a new job entirely, one that has never existed before. There is a first for everything but it’s challenging for the workforce planner who is developing something new and doesn’t have an existing role or model to work from. There is a lot of uncertainty when you are introducing new ways of working and you need careful change management from the very beginning of the work.  

To help with this, we’re organising mentors and peer groups to support sector based workforce planners. We also encourage action-based learning rather than just theoretical learning, so the workforce planners can really get that hands-on experience. It’s very experiential, which is a very different approach to what we’ve done before. 

What are the biggest benefits you have seen so far with these new ways of working and planning?

We’re still very early in the process but overtime we will be evaluating the change in workforce planning practices and the outcomes and impact for the health workforce. The more we practice, the more value we can see from these new approaches to workforce planning. 

We realise that with some of the problems in health can’t be solved with traditional approaches. If these approaches could solve issues like rural maldistribution, then we would not have a problem now. Adopting new workforce planning methods that develop new roles and workforce models have a huge potential to solve some of these long existing challenges, and that is what’s really rewarding about all of this.

Learn more at the FREE Healthcare Workforce Event running at Australian Healthcare Week on the 27-28 March at the ICC, Sydney.